It’s funny how words change their meanings over time — or, perhaps, more accurately, how our perceptions of certain words change over time. Take the word “Protestant” for example. It is based upon the word “protest” and everyone knows that this implies being opposed to things. Thus, according to the Roman church’s take on history, the “Protestants” disagreed with the Church and didn’t like submitting to its authority and wanted to be able to teach whatever they thought the Bible taught (in contrast to Church tradition) and that’s why they came into existence. Protestants opposed the church, rebelled against it, and caused a great division. Sadly, this is not only the Roman church’s take on Protestant history, it is also the popular Protestant take on themselves. To be a Protestant is to be the personification of Opposition.
Words are powerful. They mold and shape; they build up or tear down; they form psychologies, ways of seeing, and self-identities. So it is. And the perception surrounding the word “protestant” has done a number on us.
The word “protest” originally meant (and of course, still means) “to affirm, declare, or attest” to something. It means, in the first place, affirming a truth or taking a positive stand for something. To protest is to be in favor of something rather than merely being “agin” it. Of course, if I protest something, I’m obviously against it’s contrary, so there is a negative aspect to “protesting” but the focus is upon affirmation rather than dissent. This is what the reformers were doing in the Reformation. They stood in favor of the truth revealed in the Word and called the Church to reform in those areas where it had departed from Biblical teaching. They stood to promote positive reformation; a return to a faith and practice that more closely conformed to the teachings of the Scripture.
If someone had suggested that they “start another church” the very suggestion would have been inconceivable to them. To them, there was only one Church (albeit presently divided between East and West). It was their view that they should remain in communion with Rome and call for reformation. Unfortunately, the Roman Church refused to listen and refused to allow the Reformers to remain within the church so that reform could occur from within. The church decided that schism and sectarianism were more to be desired than catholicity of spirit (which again is why we must continue to call for all members of the Roman Church to quit being sectarians and schismatics become true catholics again).
But my point is not to knock the Roman Uncatholic Church but to point out how the perception surrounding the words “protest” and “protestantism” have affected our own psychology. We have in fact become more “negative” than affirmative. We think of ourselves as the guys whose specialty is spotting errors, identifying misunderstandings, and locating heresies from a mile away so that we can shoot them through the center hole. As a result, our corporate identity has become one of complainers and nit-pickers — those who are always seeing the problems and errors in everything and everyone around us (i.e. everything except our things and everyone except ourselves). We’ve forgotten who we are and consequently have, more often than not, lived up to the caricatures others have drawn. We have become divisive, self-righteous, Pharisaical, and arrogant.
Time to change this. If the Roman Church must quit being sectarian, then the Protestants must start being true Protesters again. We must be those who testify for the truth of God; those who not only rejoice in all that is true and beautiful in our brethren and give thanks for it, but who embrace the truth and live in such a way as to show forth the glory of the Lord ourselves. We must be those who confidently celebrate the victory of Jesus and look forward to the day when His Spirit will make us all like-minded; affirming (and conforming to) His truth with joy and gladness. As Protestants we must begin again to live up to our name.